Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Saudis try to find a way to curb inappropriate fatwas

Nearly a year after Saudi King Abdullah warned religious scholars that issuing careless fatwas gives extremists credibility as religious experts, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Call, Guidance and Endowment has finally said enough is enough.

Recently the Ministry issued a memo that fatwas were not to be issued to just anybody asking for one. The Ministry has ordered that Saudi imams refer people seeking fatwas to the Senior Board of Ulema.

Apparently the Ulema got tired of having their own fatwas contradicted by some obscure rural cleric who thinks of himself as a religious scholar. This new rule, although long overdue, thrills me to no end. If ever there was an aspect of Islam that has been so thoroughly abused by people who have no idea what they’re doing it’s the fatwa.

Fatwas, which are basically opinions or edicts, are supposed to be issued by Islamic scholars after careful and lengthy deliberation. The fatwa’s source comes from the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Once upon a time each and every word of a fatwa was agonized over and issued only when necessary.

Somewhere down the line more than a few imams from Seattle to Somalia fancied themselves fatwa experts and abused the privilege. As a result, trousers have been deemed sinful, Mickey Mouse was discovered to be Satan’s foot soldier, and Saudi guys were given permission to take non-Muslim Western girls as wives for a couple of months to, well – just take a guess.

Although I am not one to concern myself with the internal politics of Saudi clerics, it’s long troubled me that there often seems to be no rhyme nor reason as to what qualifies as a fatwa and who should be responsible for issuing one. At the very least it presents am image of disorganization among the Islamic religious community. At worst, it presents a picture of ignorance that leads to mockery of Islam.

At last January’s International Conference on Fatwa and its Regulations, the King stated in a speech that, “Issuing ill-considered fatwas without following any criterion offers biased, ignorant, extremist or careless individuals the opportunity to pose as religious experts qualified to issue fatwas. On the other hand, they have been abusing Islam and distorting its noble values besides offering its enemies the justification for attacking the Holy Qur’an and spreading lies about the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).”

The Senior Board of Ulema’s recent decision brings back order and the original intent of the fatwa. Now, a panel of scholars will carefully deliberate the issue before them, determine whether it deserves consideration, and if so, correctly interpret the source of the decision before a fatwa is issued.

We’ve seen in the last decade or so, wildly different interpretations of the Qur’an and the words of the Prophet. Some non-Muslims, either through an anti-Muslim agenda or just plain ignorance, mangle the verses without proper scholarly research. Worse are the extremists, who interpret the Qur’an to suit their own agenda of murder and
terror. Lost in these political sideshows -- and believe me it’s political, not religious – is that even the most learned Muslim scholar still struggles to correctly interpret the Qur’an. Scholars who spend a lifetime of study still engage in debates over the interpretation of even a single word.

Issuing half-baked fatwas trivializes the true meaning its intent and renders it a joke. And the sheer number of fatwas issued over the past year reduces the ignificance of important ones, those that are really helpful guides to making us more pious and better Muslims.

It’s ridiculous, I know, but for the sake of argument let’s consider that Mickey Mouse is indeed the devil’s toady and Minnie Mouse his handmaiden. Just how does this information help me live my life? Instead, it’s a distraction, a bit of nonsense that would not have survived scrutiny of serious religious scholars. It’s about time the real experts handled these things.

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